tech industry woes part 1: ethics, anti-history, and power

two days ago i finished the on being episode with anil dash. it is mind-blowing. everyone needs to listen to this. there’s so much to cover and reflect on that i think it’ll take me at least four posts. here goes!

anil points out a series of problems in the “tech industry” right now.

1. you can get a top notch degree in it with zero ethics training.

unlike many older professions there is little to no ethical training in computer science programs. the medical field has an oath that goes back centuries and in school, doctors are required to learn and think about ethics. there is no such requirement in pretty much any top-tier computer science shool.

2. most of computer science is anti-history

not only is there no ethical training, but there’s also no history other than the present moment. unforunately, it goes even further than that. it would be one thing if people were just ignorant of the history. but what actually happens is that people are anti-historical. looking backwards into the past is not only undervalued but discouraged. you are seen as silly and backwards if you try to position your work in a body of history (i personally experienced this in intro computer sciences classes at mit).

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — george santayana, the life of reason, vol. I, reason in common sense

3. the tech indstury is now the most powerful industry on the planet

tech has quickly become the most powerful industry in the world and that happened so quickly that we can’t keep up (well, in another place, anil himself argues that there isn’t actually such a thing as “the tech industry”, but i’m just gonna leave it here for now). there were many centuries where pretty terrible medical procedures were normal. it probably took the medical field a while to land on needing some ethical standards. but it also didn’t overtake the world in a matter of years. the tech industry has no such luxury. the tech industry controls global capital flows with little to no effort. the ethical grounding of a field that has grown so quickly is imperative. that makes it extra-detrimental that it doesn’t actually have a shared ethical code.


relevant quote from the transcript

They were very vocal about how everybody in Tahrir Square is using Twitter. And when they at least nominally liked the results, then Twitter was taking the credit. And when they don’t like the results, Twitter is a neutral tool. Right? And I’ve been that guy. I’m not pointing fingers. But we did learn that lesson.

And then if you look at every other professional discipline, you look at somebody who goes to law school, somebody who goes to business school, journalism school, medical school, every single one of those disciplines has a professional society that sets standards. And if you don’t meet them, you can be disbarred. You can lose your medical license. There’s an expectation about what you’re supposed to do.

And in the educational process, there’s an extensive ethical curriculum. The bridge has to stay up; it can’t fall down. You have a historical tradition where, in medicine, they’re going back to Hippocrates. In law, you’re like talking about English common law that happened centuries ago. And then in computer science, they’re sort of radically anti-historical. Not even ahistorical, just like, there is nothing before now.

We refuse to see — there is no before time. And there is zero ethical curriculum. You can get a top-of-the-line, the highest credential computer science degree from the most august institutions with essentially having had zero ethics training. And that is, in fact, the most likely path to getting funded as a successful startup in Silicon Valley. — Anil Dash

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